Jan 7, 2020

Axios Media Trends

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Situational awareness: Facebook says it's changing its policies to ban certain deepfakes. YouTube says it's overhauling its advertising and data collection on content for children.

1 big thing: Iran's disinformation threat

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America "needs to be prepared for retaliation in the hard cyber space and soft information space" after killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, says a top expert at the Atlantic Council.

Why it matters: Iranian influence operations to-date have been different than other state-backed disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia.

  • "This style is extremely different than Russia, which we know tries to infiltrate online communities and engage to cause more social chaos," says Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council.
  • "The bulk of its foreign-focused operations have focused on amplifying regime propaganda by laundering it through undeclared fronts, such as websites and fake social-media profiles. There has been some divisive content, but this was a small proportion," says Ben Nimmo, the Director of Investigations at social media intelligence firm Graphika.

What's happening: As of Monday, the Lab had yet to spot any large-scale information operations directly attributable to the Iranian government beyond strong public statements, Brookie told Axios.

Yes, but: Iran has a recent history of misinformation campaigns. (Social media companies took action on these campaigns last January, May and October.)

  • The Lab is looking at the coverage of the topic by state-backed media and messaging laundromats like the International Union of Virtual Media, an Iranian internet disinformation group, says the Lab's Kanishk Karan.
  • Karan predicts that the other main effort of disinformation that could hit is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-backed trolling operations on Twitter or other platforms.

The big picture: Iran has spent years building an online influence apparatus to help further its foreign policy objectives. These sophisticated campaigns are often built to effectively mimic real news and disappear quickly.

  • Currently, "pro-Iran users certainly look like they're picking up on a common set of messaging - for example, there are a lot of references to US soldiers coming home in coffins," says Nimmo.
  • "Some of the memes are taken from stock online sources, but some appear to be linked with more organised pro-regime groups, which suggests some sort of attempt to shape and drive the traffic, if not direct coordination."

Go deeper: Follow all of Axios' Iran coverage by signing up for David Lawler's Axios World newsletter.

2. Exclusive: Michelle Obama launches Instagram series with ATTN:


Former First Lady Michelle Obama is partnering with the digital media company ATTN: to launch a video series on IGTV, Instagram's video platform.

  • “A Year of Firsts” shows inspiring stories about students navigating their first year through college.

Why it matters: The Obamas have maintained a strong media presence through civic media projects on newer tech platforms.

  • Last June, Michelle and Barack Obama's production company Higher Ground announced it would begin working with Spotify to produce podcasts.
  • In 2018, Higher Ground signed a multi-year deal with Netflix to produce TV shows and films that spotlight issues such as race, class, democracy and civil rights.

Details: The show will be produced by ATTN:, a media company that focuses on millennial video, in partnership with Reach Higher, an initiative founded by Obama during her time at the White House to inspire and support students to pursue higher education.

  • The first episode of the six-episode series will premiere exclusively on IGTV in mid-January. The last will appear in June.
  • ATTN: is working with the students directly to document their first year as they explore issues like the academic stress of college, making new friends, college affordability, and physical and mental health while in college.

The big picture: This isn't ATTN:'s first video series with a prominent political figure.

  • ATTN: launched an exclusive video series with former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the 2018 midterms called “Here’s the Deal.” At the time, it was the first IGTV series to be hosted by a national U.S. politician.
3. Attention economy shifts to the road

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One of the big themes at CES this year has been the race to own the media experience when cars go driverless.

Why it matters: The complications around who will own the data, how connectivity will work and what "driverless" actually means haven't stopped companies from making big announcements this year.

Driving the news: Amazon announced a slew of deals to get its Fire TV software built into more televisions, soundbars and even the back seats of cars, Axios' Ina Fried reports. BMW and Fiat Chrysler Automotive will be among the first to offer such systems, Amazon said.

  • ViacomCBS, Accuweather, and others announced a partnership with Byton, an electric vehicle startup, to provide content and services for the massive 48-inch screen in its upcoming M-Byte plug-in SUV, Axios' Joann Muller reports.
  • Sony, the entertainment company, debuted an electric vehicle called "Vision S," which, like Byton, features a huge panoramic dashboard screen. The car was showcased to show off Sony's car tech, including entertainment tech.
  • Audi showed a concept car, the AI:ME, that bills itself as an "attentive companion," per Joann. The car familiarizes itself with its users and their habits and tailors its comfort and infotainment systems to suit their preferences.

Voice controls in cars were also on full display. Lamborghini said it's adding Amazon's Alexa voice assistant to its Huracán EVO this year. Amazon and Exxon announced a deal to allow voice-enabled gas purchases.

Go deeper: The product announcements to watch for at CES 2020

4. NFL rights up for grabs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Viewership of televised NFL games was up 5% to 16.5 million for the 2019 regular season, its second consecutive annual increase of 5%.

  • Why it matters: The rebound in viewership from previous two years will give the NFL higher leverage when negotiating new distribution deals with media partners.

By the numbers: Currently, the NFL gets around $1 billion annually from each the three broadcast networks (CBS, FOX and NBC) that air Sunday games, over $1 billion from ESPN to air Monday night games and around $1.5 billion from AT&T's DirecTV to distribute its Sunday Ticket package.

The big picture: Most of the NFL's current media deals expire in 2022.

  • Its Monday Night Football deal with ESPN expires next year and it's possible that the league will begin announcing new distribution partners this year.
  • Experts predict that the deal prices will go up significantly in the next round of negotiations.

Between the lines: There have been lots of end-of-year predictions about who is poised to nab NFL rights when the current slate of rights soon expire.

  • Monday Night Football: LightShed Partner and media analyst Rich Greenfield predicts the NFL will only allow ESPN to renew Monday Night Football "with Disney agreeing to simulcast on ABC" to increase the programming’s reach and value.
  • NFL Sunday Ticket: AT&T COO John Stankey said last September that the telecom giant would consider dropping its exclusive rights to the NFL's Sunday Ticket package.
  • YouTube, which has bid on the package before, will likely place a bid, but given the fact that the package features most Sunday NFL games, it's likely the NFL won't shift the deal from a television company.
  • Global streaming service DAZN, which is currently raising lots of money for rights acquisitions, will come close to picking up rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, Sports Business Journal media reporter John Ourand predicts.
  • Sunday afternoons: Greenfield predicts that CBS will lose Sunday afternoon NFL rights to either NBC or ABC, given price increases, and that Fox will retain its rights. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in December that the NFL has “a great deal of faith in CBS” and that Viacom's international reach could help them retain rights.

Yes, but: CBS may have a chunk of cash ready to place a competitive bid, given that Ourand reports it's likely CBS "will walk away from the SEC when its contract ends after the 2023 football season." Ourand reports that all indications are that the package will move to ESPN/ABC.

5. AT&T's Xandr readying 2020 WarnerMedia integration

AT&T's advertising division Xandr is preparing to further integrate its advertising and data operations with WarnerMedia's advertising and data operations this year, Xandr CEO Brian Lesser said in an exclusive interview with Axios at CES in Las Vegas.

Why it matters: Lesser says that the integration is a necessary step in realizing the full value of AT&T's recent acquisitions of Time Warner and AppNexus, and that combining the brands is a top priority for 2020.

  • Reports have surfaced over the past few months about the two units working more closely together.
  • Lesser also told Axios that the company is open to further acquisitions. 

Be smart: AT&T is facing a lot of investor pressure to consolidate its operations to cut costs.

  • AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has pointed to Xandr as an example of ways the company is looking to create synergies from its acquisition.

Between the lines: AT&T created Xandr in 2018 as a way to consolidate all of AT&T's advertising infrastructure, including assets from its Time Warner and AppNexus acquisitions.

  • But some of the advertising and data sales and operations infrastructure from WarnerMedia (which is what it renamed its Time WArrner assets) have remained separate from Xandr to-date, which has caused some confusion amongst ad buyers.

Why now? Lesser implied that AT&T needed to move slowly and carefully when integrating the businesses.

  • "When you acquire an asset as big as Time Warner or as significant as AppNexus, I think you want to preserve the value in that asset, even knowing that you're going to have to generate value and create efficiencies," he said.

Go deeper.

6. Scoop: Emerson Collective initial launch partner for new NowThis division

NowThis, the millennial social video media outlet that's part of Group Nine Media, will announce today the launch of NowThis Impact, a new editorial division that covers social issues and is underwritten by non-profits.

Why it matters: Underwriting editorial content is becoming a bigger trend as more philanthropy and non-profit money floods into journalism.

Details: Emerson Collective, a social change organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, will serve as the company's launch partner.

  • NowThis is looking to announce additional underwriters in coming months.
  • It will work with issue experts to form content partnerships around certain issues that contain specific calls to action.
  • The new product aims to meet the content appetites of NowThis' audience of progressive and civically-minded millennials.

Be smart: It's not the first time Group Nine has dabbled in "call-to-action" media/journalism. Its animal franchise, The Dodo, has in the past directed its audience to adoption resources.

Disclosure: Emerson Collective is an investor in Axios.

7. A new golden age of China journalism

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing number of investigative journalists and news organizations around the world are investing more resources in covering China from afar, Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party claims China's rise offers the world an alternative to western leadership and values.

  • In the coming decade, journalism is vital to understanding exactly what kind of global leader China will be.
  • Several major news organizations, including The Economist and Reuters, have created new positions specifically for covering China in the world, and many other outlets have dedicated resources to covering the topic.

Go deeper.